Sunday, November 4, 2012

Winter, Spring, Summer, Abscission

It's happening everywhere right now!  Plants are chopping off their own organs, and they are piling up in yards all over town!  How come no one is worried about this epidemic of leaf death??!!  Well, it happens every year, so I'm pretty sure the plants are going to recover.  Still, why on earth would plants get rid of their most important organs?  That's what we'll address in today's post.
Closeup of leaf abscission zone on sourwood.
In the picture above, you can see the color difference between the pale pink of a leaf petiole (technical term for a leaf stem), and the bright red of a sourwood twig.  The line between those two differently-colored plant parts is called the abscission (ab-SIZH-uhn) zone. 
Fresh leaf scar where the abscission zone dissolved and the leaf fell off.
This time of year, the layers of abscission zones are changing.  One layer is hardening and filling up with a corky substance called suberin.  Suberin is waterproof and heals what would otherwise be a wound where the leaf falls off.  The leaf scar in the picture above is dry and not losing sap because suberin has sealed the wound.  The second layer in the abscission zone is made of thin-walled, weak cells that self-dissolve when the plant is ready to shed its leaves.  Abscission zones are usually quite noticeable this time of year on any plant that is in the process of losing its leaves.  Take a look at the next two pictures and find the abscission zones.

Sourwood leaves and petioles (stems) about to undergo abscission.
The abscission zone is at the base of the leaf petiole where it attaches to the twig.
It is extremely unusual for living organisms to shed any part of themselves except for the production of offspring.  Some lizards have tails that fall off to distract predators, and many plants lose their leaves in the fall - but I can't think of other examples of falling-off body parts.  Of course, most organisms constantly rebuild their outer-coverings and some organisms can replace body parts that are bitten off, but voluntary amputation is strange, indeed! 

The loss of body parts comes at a huge cost.  Plants work all summer to catch enough sunlight to grow more leaves and get bigger, and leaf abscission every fall would seem to waste that energy.   But as with the lizards that lose their tails, there are also benefits.  Lizards' bodies escape to live another day and regrow another tail.  Plants benefit from shedding leaves by not having to maintain those leaves during the winter.  Leaves are tender tissues that would become disfigured and die when frozen.  Try putting some lettuce leaves in the freezer over night and then take them out to thaw.  You will notice they turn to mush when they return to room temperature.  In order for plants' leaves to survive winter, they would have to be tough, like holly, magnolia or spruce leaves, which take much more energy to produce.  Plants with leaves that survive freezing grow more slowly than ones that shed their leaves.
Dogwood with remnants of chlorophyll along veins and lots of anthocycanins (red pigment).

Plants have many ways to minimize the costs of losing their leaves.  They move all available nutrients out of their leaves and down into their roots to save the food for the next growing season.  Leaves fall near the plant that grew them and decompose, releasing their nutrients into the soil and further increasing the amount of nutrients recovered by the plant.  In this way, deciduous plants grow their own mulch.  Some plants, like walnut trees, even deposit compounds in their leaves that suppress the growth of competitor plants as the leaves decompose throughout the winter and spring. 
Rainbow of fall colors.
As leaves senesce (slow down and die) in the fall, they turn the variety of amazing colors we are so familiar with.  Plants' normal color is green, due to the most important compound in the world: chlorophyll.  Chlorophyll is the substance in plants that allows them to absorb sunlight and use the energy from sun to make food, a process called photosynthesis.  In the fall, chlorophyll breaks down, revealing other colorful substances plants use for photosynthesis: xanthophyll (ZAN-tho-fill), a yellow pigment, and carotene (CARE-oh-teen), an orange pigment.  As temperatures drop, some plants make anthocyanin (AN-tho-SIGH-uh-nin), a red pigment that helps the plants store sugars for winter.  Some plants reveal tanins (TAN-ins) in their leaves in the fall.  Tannins are brown in color and are thought to be waste molecules produced by plants.  They have a bitter flavor, though some tannins are pleasant, including the ones found in tea leaves.
Leaf scar on a buckeye showing scars where the leaf veins were sealed off with suberin.
So leaf abscission is a trade-off that works in parts of the world with four seasons.  Plants in the tropics and plants in colder regions keep their leaves.  Tropical plants don't have to deal with cold, so they don't shed their leaves unless there is a yearly dry season.  Plants nearer the poles of the planet don't have a long-enough growing season to start from scratch every year, so they have to grow slowly and produce evergreen leaves and needles.  We lucked out, and we get to see the beautiful fall colors that accompany leaf abscission.

1 comment:

  1. The loss of body parts comes at a huge cost. Plants work all summer to catch enough sunlight to grow more leaves and get bigger native wetland plants